Remembering the Sichuan earthquake: “We are not alone”

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HANGZHOU, CHINA—“Our President, Hu Jintao, said little, but did a lot,” reflected a Sichuan resident on the Chinese government’s actions in response to the earthquake that occurred on May 12 in the Sichuan province, 50 miles west northwest of the capital city of Chengdu. “Anders,” who requested I not use his real name, is a 25-year-old textile industry account executive in the city of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, where people in high-rise office buildings felt the tremors of the 8.0 earthquake. Hangzhou is 960 miles to the east of Chengdu.

“It was not only a slogan that we must try our best to save the lives of the people in the earthquake area,” observed Anders. “The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) did their best to save lives.” The Chinese government confirmed that the earthquake caused approximately 70,000 deaths. 300,000 people were injured, 20,000 listed as missing, and about 4.8 million were left homeless. The Sichuan earthquake was the strongest to hit China in over 30 years.

Images of the devastation were broadcast to the public very soon after the shocks of the earthquake, and the dangers were emphasized. Immediately ordering the PLA to the scene demonstrated that the government cared about the people, said Anders. The nation watched as the PLA used their hands and small, simple tools to rescue many people who were buried in collapsed buildings. In order to save lives, use of heavy equipment was forbidden during the rescue stage of the disaster operations.

“The PLA played an important role,” said Anders. “Why didn’t the U.S. Army help the African-American people in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit?” Further evidence of the Chinese government’s compassionate leadership, he said, was that government officials themselves withstood the unsafe conditions. Officals visited the people and encouraged them to “get a positive attitude of life, and to rebuild their hometown.” They also later visited the factories where tents were manufactured and thanked the people for working so hard to produce a large supply of tents for the earthquake victims.

International teams who were more experienced in disaster rescue and recovery came to China and helped. “When the international teams came to help,” said Anders with emotion, “I felt great. When our nation was in a disaster, we can get the help. Even if they could not save any more lives, we feel we are not alone.”

Companies encouraged their employees to make donations to victims of the earthquake. Anders donated 100 RMB—about $15—which he said was not a large amount, but it was the average amount donated by employees at his level. Employees looked to their leaders for guidance as to the amount they should donate. At the managerial level, the average donation was 500 RMB. There was a great deal of focus on individual contributions, and there was a general expectation that those who had more should give more.

A foreigner who has lived in China for ten years noted that charitable giving by corporations and individuals is a fairly recent concept; there has been much discussion about the new tradition. As a foreigner, he was offended when his colleagues asked him directly how much he gave. Anders agreed that, “it was not a proper time to talk about this.”

“I do not feel good when I hear people complaining that celebrities don’t give enough,” Anders said. For example, people complained that Yao Ming was not sufficiently generous, and subsequently the NBA star made additional donations. There was also criticism that the 500,000 RMB (approx US $75,000) donation by Liu Xiang, Olympic champion in the 110m hurdles, and his coach was not a lot. Although the amount donated by Hong Kong film star Andy Liu was not publicly disclosed, he was not spared the negative critique.

Contributions were not limited to monetary donations. People donated new clothes (old clothes were not accepted) and household supplies. After sitting the all-important college entrance examinations, high school seniors donated their textbooks to the students in Sichuan, for whom the exam was postponed for a month. The bus company in Hangzhou offered immigrants from Sichuan free bus rides home to visit their families.

Despite praise for the government’s actions after the earthquake, Anders is also critical of policies that allowed construction of buildings that violated safety codes. “How could our country not consider enough, especially for places like schools? How could they not think about the children? And hospitals—if hospitals collapse, where people go? Also, the government do not consider the power station. There was no power.” He shook his head woefully.

The most important lesson that Anders learned from this disaster was not to take the future for granted. “Overnight, so many lives were lost. Realize that your relatives and your friends are more important than money. Do not hurt the feelings of your parents and your friends; be more tolerant of each other. Get a happy life.”

Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.